In 1909, Israel Zangwill, a prominent British writer of his time, wrote the play ‘The Melting Pot’ from which the above quotation is taken. The hero of the play is David, a Russian Jew who emigrated to the United States following the killing of his entire family in a pogrom against the Jews. In the US, David writes a symphony called ‘The Crucible’ where he expresses his hope for a world where all differences of ethnicity and religion will melt away. He falls in love with a Christian immigrant also from Tsarist Russia. When he meets the girl’s father, it turns out that he was the Russian military officer responsible for the annihilation of David’s family. He admits his guilt and expresses remorse and consents to the marriage of his daughter Vera to David. When the play was staged in Washington DC, President Theodore Roosevelt was in the audience. At the end of the play, he is reported to have leaned over from his box and shouted to Zangwell, “That’s a great play, Mr. Zangwill, that’s a great play.” He later wrote to Zangwill, “That particular play I shall always count among the very strong and real influences upon my thought and my life.”
The title of this week’s column is taken from the motto inscribed on the Great Seal of the United States of America, adopted soon after the country obtained its independence from British rule. It symbolizes the pride which the founding fathers of that country had in welding one nation out of people drawn from the indigenous community, immigrants from many countries, many faiths, many cultures and from many ethnicities. It may not always have been so in practice but at least that was the ideal that the founding fathers and the nation’s leaders over the years sought to achieve – a true melting pot as Israel Zangwill has attempted to show in the words quoted above. That was also the ideal that many other countries with diverse communities have tried to uphold, but not always succeeded. Across the world, we hear of conflicts and tensions along religious, ethnic and cultural lines.
Karl Meyer and Shareen Brysac are a husband and wife team of veteran journalists, who travelled around the world to study communities where diversity has succeeded. They have just published their book Pax Ethnica where they write about the success stories of five communities who are a lesson to others in how diverse groups can live together in harmony. Their travels took them to Flensborg in Germany where the Schelswig-Holstein Question had kept a conflict going for over a century, to Marseille in France which is home to Europe’s largest Muslim community, to the Queen’s District in New York City where 2.3 million people speak over 138 languages, to the Russian republic of Tatarstan which has a Muslim majority and a significant Orthodox Christian population and to Kerala in South India where significant numbers of Hindus, Muslims and Christians live together in peaceful co-existence.
Kerala and Sri Lanka
Kerala in many ways is similar to Sri Lanka. Apart from a sizeable section of our people owing their origins to that part of the sub-continent, Kerala is a multi-religious society with the Hindus accounting for a little more than half of Kerala’s population. The other half is shared by Muslims and Christians. It has also over 90% literacy. Kerala ranks first in both Educational development and Human development indices among the various states of India. It thus has a highly educated population. Meyer and Brysac quote a Kerala environmentalist as saying, “Everything we produce in Kerala is of export quality. Like our cashew, our young people are also export quality”. He was referring to over a million Keralites who are employed all over the world as professionals, teachers, nurses, skilled workers, etc. In the Gulf countries, Malalayalam, the language of all Keralites, is perhaps the most commonly used language other than Arabic.
But the comparison between Kerala and Sri Lanka stops there. Transparency International deems Kerala the “least corrupt” among states and countries of South Asia. But more than that, Kerala, despite its religious diversity, has enjoyed religious harmony for many years. Perhaps this is rooted in their education and culture. Over fifty years ago, Kerala produced the first democratically elected secular Marxist government in the world. The legendary and highly principled E M S Namboodripad was the first Marxist Chief Minister. But even before that, Kerala has had a tradition of left-wing pluralism. E Pluribus Unum is an equally apt motto for Kerala. Among her more famous sons and daughters have been the fiery diplomat-politician V K Krishna Menon (credited with having made the longest ever speech at the United Nations), writer Arundhathi Roy (who won the Booker Prize not long ago), and not forgetting the science teacher and rationalist Abraham T Kovoor (who delighted in debunking religious and other charlatans in Sri Lanka who sought to claim super-natural powers).
But the magic of Kerala lies in the ability of its people and the political leadership to succeed amidst diversity, to transcend religious and caste differences and to reject intolerance and bigotry in favour of embracing pluralism. Apart from religious diversity, Kerala is also a highly caste-stratified society. But, because of their left wing idealism, caste labels lie easily on the people. Namboodripad was himself a land-owning Brahmin. His extended family also shared his political idealism. Some of them had continued to perform priestly functions in a family-owned Hindu temple in their native village of Panjal. Many of them were social activists who had divested much of the family-owned ancestral farmlands to the workers on the land, workers belonging to both the so-called middle castes as well as dalits, the so-called lower castes.
The Namboodripad government introduced the Kerala Land Reform Act. Nearly twenty years later, Richard Franke, an American anthropologist, made a study to determine if the Act had in reality broken up large estates in this typical village of Panjal. He concluded in research articles and books published in 1993/1994 that the reforms had significantly reduced caste inequality. The historic grip of Panjal’s Namboodri Brahmins on land ownership and higher incomes, Franke concluded, had been decisively broken.
Meyer and Brysac also report of a meeting they had with a Communist Chairman of a local authority in the Municipality of Thalassery. They had asked the Chairman about religious harmony in the city which had a larger-than-average number of Muslims. ‘Putting our scepticism to rest’, they write, the Chairman pointed to his deputy seated next to him, and said, “I am a Hindu, he is a Muslim”. Meyer and Brysac then asked, ‘Suppose a problem happens between Muslims and Hindus, do you solve it or do the Police?’ The Chairman had responded, ‘The communal problems are usually created by one or two bad elements, perhaps for political or communal reasons. Rumours start when nothing has really happened but just to throw oil on the fire. The police will first try and quell the rumours and then they intervene. For example, recently a Hindu procession was going to the temple and somebody threw a sandal and there was a rumour that a Muslim did it. Actually, it was done by some Hindus in order to cause a problem. The matter was resolved within twenty-four hours. The Hindus were persuaded by the evidence and nothing happened.’
Problems of Diversity in Sri Lanka
All this is in contrast to the way religious and communal problems have been allowed to grow and fester in Sri Lanka. We have had an ethnic problem that has lasted over fifty years. The LTTE has been annihilated and its terrorism crushed. But as the LLRC has recommended, the grievances of the minorities need to be addressed at a political level. The government is ignoring the LLRC recommendations only at its own peril. Unfortunately, it is not only at the peril of the government and its political leadership, it is the country as a whole that will suffer. We would have been spared over fifty years of terror and violence if the then government had the vision and the strength to take the extremist elements head on and take a political position that ensured justice and equality for all communities who form our nation.
Sadly, that short-sighted and narrow vision is being repeated in the way the recent campaign against the Muslim community is being handled by the leading lights of the government. It appears that powerful figures in the ruling family share the obscurantist thinking of the extremist elements who are stirring up anti-Muslim feelings in the country. The greater tragedy is that young students are being drawn into this hate campaign and are being encouraged to show disrespect not only to fellow students of another faith but also to elder women of that faith. The halal issue was obviously only a smoke-screen to hide their utterly contemptible communal campaign against this minority community. What else does one make of the call to boycott business establishments owned by this community.
The only silver lining is that there still are some sane voices within the governing coalition. Dinesh Gunawardena is reported to have raised this issue at a cabinet meeting and called for action against the extremist groups stirring up communal hatred. In the Kurunegala district, Sarath Navinna and Jayaratne Herath, two Provincial Council Ministers, have reportedly taken action along with the Police to stamp out violence against the Muslim community. Senior SLFP members are also reported to have privately expressed their anguish at the turn of events. But these isolated voices are not enough. There has to be an open denunciation of communalism and a call for all communities to be treated with respect and dignity from all our leaders – religious, political, and from the civil society and media. Like in the case of the impeachment of the Chief Justice, such calls may fall on deaf ears. But at least the soul of the nation will be stirred and woken.
Freedom of thought, conscience and religion are fundamental human rights. So also are cultural and religious practices associated with one’s beliefs. Of course, nobody should impose one’s own practices on others. So any non-Muslim who finds it offensive to consume what is loosely termed ‘halal food’ has the fundamental right not to consume such food. But in doing so, a Muslim should not be deprived of following his religious practice of eating only ‘halal food’. So also with the issue of a dress code for men and women. Every individual should have the freedom to dress in accordance with the religious or cultural practices that he or she follows, as long as that dress code does not offend the dignity of society.
Sri Lanka has an eighty year history of universal suffrage which led up to democratic self-rule. A melting pot of diverse cultures does not mean that we eliminate all other cultures but one. Out of the many, we should emerge as one people but retaining our distinct identities. Only then could we look forward, rather than backward.
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